November 14, 1996
A load of coq
Chicken Kiev isback! Black Forest gateau is cool! It's time to recreate the Seventies kitchen.Emily Green is not so sure
What ho, the stylemerchants are diddling our diets again. Eat Soup, the first "in-yourface" food magazine, announces Seventies food is back. So forget sweatedpeppers or rocket salad with balsamic vinegar and make for the fondue set inthe attic. No, go one better, throw your office Christmas party in an AberdeenSteak House. Don't chuck out your chintz, chuck out your tiramisu and bring onthe black forest gateau.
However, before youcall in those style-skips Ikea has rumbling around the land, here are a fewthings Eat Soup neglected to mention. The proponent of what it calls "retro-cuisine"is none other than Alan Crompton-Batt, who must be pleased at being fashionedas a "restaurant guru". In plainer English this means publicrelations agent. This is the same Alan Crompton- Batt who five years ago wastelling reporters that no self-respecting restaurant, even a Chinese one, coulddo without a cappuccino machine.
As for "retrocuisine", he says: "Nico Ladenis does tournedos Rossini, Marco PierreWhite has done chicken Kiev and yesterday I enjoyed prawn cocktail at theHalcyon." It is not mentioned that tournedos Rossini never leftMichelin-league menus or, more pointedly, that Mr Crompton-Batt's clients haveincluded Nico and the Halcyon. Nor does it tread upon the delicate territory ofthis particular guru's reputation. The quality of Mr Crompton-Batt's counsel toless celebrated establishments in the late Eighties and early Nineties earnedhim the rare distinction of becoming the subject of an expose on Face theFacts.
Yet it should beadmitted that retro-cuisine is here, if not exactly new. In more civilisedcountries it is known as tradition. Imagine, if you will, the Chineserediscovering the egg noodle or the people of Marseilles opening their morningpaper to read "bouillabaisse is back". Would the rich industrialistsof Turin ever need to be told "risotto has returned"? Paella willnever need reviving in Spain. Fondue never went out in Switzerland, Germany andAlsace, where it marries the best of the local cheese and wine into a dish thatsuits the climate. Presumably, in spite of gimmicks, at least one Briton hadegg on toast today.
It is no good blamingthe British proclivity for food fads on the States. Yes, the US has its trends.A good example of this is a brave joke among New York's gays in the lateEighties that Aids was spread by quiche and track lighting. Yet that countrywould not, for example, need magazine articles to rediscover its passion forthe hamburger, while here in Blighty, only three years ago, the restaurantindustry was abuzz with the return of sturdy English classics, from toad in thehole to bangers and mash. Half pints of ale briefly supplanted shots offlavoured vodka in West End bars. Fashion is so strongly twinned with appetitein London that a newcomer could be forgiven for thinking the fishcake wasinvented at Le Caprice.
"The notion thatcertain foods, certain dishes should come in and out of fashion isabhorrent," says Lindsey Bareham. She and Simon Hopkinson co-wrote theaward-winning cookery book Roast Chicken and Other Stories, whose title alonespeaks for the book's rather European sense of timelessness to good food.However, their new project may be mistaken for "retro-cuisine". Theyare fast at work on The Prawn Cocktain Years, celebrating classic dishes fromthe Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. "It's not 'retro'," saysHopkinson. "It's about food that Lindsey and I grew up with and loveeating." You will not find Hopkinson jeering at Marie Rose sauce, merelyconcluding it's probably better made with ketchup than fresh tomatoes.
It would merit leavingfood fads to the gurus if they didn't have such ghastly repercussions. Britishfarmers are three times more likely to kill themselves than the averagecitizen. Look at what is expected of them and it is no wonder. We want onething one minute and another thing the next. Pity the farmer who switched tobeef in 1993 when it was the height of chic to eat oxtail as prepared by GaryRhodes. Three years later this skittish country equates it with BSE stew. Westubbornly ignore that only consistency brings care. It is hard to imagine theFrench allowing boeuf bourguignon to become synonymous with a death sentence,or abandoning Roquefort because Richard Lacey was on the radio.
Fads may be disastrousfor British farmers but supermarkets don't care. They don't have to. Theirpurchasers can pick up one supplier and drop another every time some pundit oranother informs us that sun-dried tomatoes are out, olive oil is out, butter isin, saffron is in, no-salt bread is out and in at the same time and we no longercare about free range chickens. There is little danger of contradiction bysales statistics. Sainsbury's, in common with most major food retailers, nolonger releases these. It is regarded as commercially sensitive information.
Let us examine what Sainsbury'swill admit: first, surprise, surprise, that sales of cranberries more or lesstrebled last year before Christmas in connection with Delia Smith broadcasts.One cannot help but wonder what producer, geared up to supply supermarkets, gotdumped to make way for all those North American berries. Or if this year Deliawill reinvent Cumberland sauce.
Before Delia's twinalliance with the BBC and Sainsbury's invented the food fad from hell, trendsstill left their marks. Fancy food in the Seventies was characterised bynouvelle cuisine and raspberry vinegar, during the Eighties the height of chicwas a Thai takeaway. The upshot is that it is now easier to buy lemongrass inMiddlesbrough than fresh chicken livers, an ambitious Cumbrian baker feelscompelled to produce a sun-dried tomato loaf, the best organic miller inGloucestershire produces a special ciabatta flour and Black Forest gateau isconsidered a really cool joke by the editors of Eat Soup.
Then again it isdifficult to separate fads from notable improvements in the British kitchen. Itwould be churlish to complain olive oil now occupies equal shelf space withbutter in British supermarkets, that pesto is now something of a staple andthere is as much creme fraiche and fromage frais around as yoghurt and cream.This is no bad thing. Kept in proportion, imported ideas and ingredients canact as spice to a local culinary tradition.
Yet a country thatequates coq au vin with flared trousers is in danger of being all spice, nocontent. The one trend doing brilliantly in Germany, America and Australia thatwe can't seem to get our head around is the move towards organic food and thecelebration of local, seasonal produce. Nah, where's the fun in that? Pass thegammon and pineapple chunks
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